In my capacity as a TEC Chair and business coach, my conversations are littered with outbursts from CEOs lamenting their problems with generational change. In particular, the dreaded Generation Y — who many would have us believe have descended in the dead of night from another galaxy and infiltrated into our business landscape — are causing untold mayhem.

Of course, the media have made a profit with their hysterical reporting on the different generations. Right on cue as I put this article together, comes an article in my local paper that says Generation X have been named the world’s worst lovers! I will not bore you with the reasons behind this mind-blowing statement except to say that any day I expect to hear that Gen Y is to blame for global warming!

Let’s get down to business. First let’s define “Who is what” in the generation debate:

1929-1945 Silent Generation
1946-1964 Baby Boomers
1965-1977 Generation X
1978-1994 Generation Y
1995-2008 Generation Z

Now, it is time to add a modicum of balance to the debate and to analyse the facts that Baby Boomers have conveniently evaded in the search for answers as to how we might deal with the phenomenon. Obviously this is causing considerable angst throughout the business community, not just in Australia but worldwide, particularly in family businesses and SMEs. This continual hand wringing serves no useful purpose and does not help to find ways to work with the problem. As always, talk is cheap.

Firstly, we must give ourselves a pat on the back as our much maligned education system is now producing generations of very smart, tertiary educated graduates and high school students. The level of knowledge that is being acquired is astounding. I can testify to this as we have both Generation Y & Z’s in our household and a comparison of my own schooling leaves me feeling somewhat inadequate.

The sources of information available to them are unprecedented in our lifetime, allowing recipients to access a plethora of subjects. It also enables them to form views which …surprise surprise… do not necessarily coincide with our own.

There is nothing new or unusual about this, it has been going on for a very long time in households throughout the world. I remember as a 15 year old arguing with my father about the status of the Peron dynasty in Argentina (yes I know I needed to get a life). I vehemently argued my case, but of course some years later after my father’s death, I was to discover he was in fact right. I often reflect on my position on that day. Baby Boomers seem to have a convenient lapse of memory when it comes to generational change and how we tackle it.

Generations X & Y have witnessed the rationalisation and collapse of businesses which may have affected their respective family units, where members have been retrenched after many years of service. A notable example in recent years being the demise of Ansett (Australia) and the acts of corporate malfeasance such as HIH (Australia), Enron & Arthur Andersen (USA), where directors engaged in serious criminal activity and caused so many people grief. Is it no wonder some have lost confidence in the system and the people who run business? This is also reflected in their thinking about global enterprises which may not have acted in the best interests of their employees. Ask the giant Nike Corporation how difficult it was in the aftermath of the “sweatshop scandal” to recruit young talent. Social responsibility for organisations is now regarded as non negotiable and, given the above, is this not a good thing?

The stark reality is that the balance of power has again changed from one generation to another, and the once sacrosanct title “leader” is now often challenged. Respect does not follow just because one is at the top of the tree, it must be earned. The late Peter Drucker, the visionary management commentator, said before his death “Yesterday’s leader knew how to tell; today’s leader needs to know how to ask”.

The Baby Boomers were taught that a belief in people and relationships mattered, and guardians never missed an opportunity to impress this on their children. It is rather striking, but should not be surprising, that we see and hear evidence that Generation Y hold great store in their relationships, much to the chagrin of their parents and employers, as they make choices which do not necessarily place work at the forefront of their decision making. This is probably the hardest issue for Baby Boomer CEOs to accept, and new and diverse strategies for engagement are needed in the workplace. This is about leadership and learning to adapt to a new paradigm which is a major departure in how we have previously operated.

I can hear a chorus of CEOs say, “We will have our time sooner or later! The job market will weaken as the economy inevitably softens.” My reaction to this is “Don’t hold your breath.” It is unlikely their values and behaviour will change and furthermore, the next wave – Generation Z are likely to be a more radical version of Generation Y.

We all have choices in this matter, continue to agonise about the situation or take action. Waiting for a rainy day or a wind change can be a very dangerous strategy. So what could be the key measures that may be applicable for your business in the integration of staff from these generations?

An analysis of your company’s culture could be in order to determine the type of people that “fit” into the structure. It could be that a decision is made to gravitate to more mature employees. Or better still, try to strike a balance between generations with more seasoned employees giving the younger people the benefit of their life experiences. In considering candidates, the use of prescreening tools should be explored to determine the motives and drivers of applicants. Work performed at this stage can save a lot of heartache later.

The absence of a plan for new employee will make your company a less attractive proposition. Their role must be clearly defined with a training and development plan for the future. A key failure of companies is to engage a younger employee in menial tasks for any great length of time. The mentality of someone ‘paying their dues’ is outmoded and will lead very quickly to disassociation from the organisation.

The growth of companies adopting mentoring programs is seen as a very positive move by the younger generations. But, the notion that this can be performed by the CEO or manager is not always appropriate as the person being mentored must have established a level of trust. Mentors can be selected from appropriate members of staff or from an external provider. The process allows the company to gauge the disposition of the employee and act accordingly if the relationship is in danger of breaking down.

Undoubtedly one of the most common mistakes that companies make is not setting boundaries and protocols with new employees. It may sound as if the flow of benefits from generational change flows only one way, but this need not be the case. A clear understanding of what is required from the person and adherence to the company culture is absolutely essential. If not, you will see authority challenged as this is a characteristic of Generation Y behaviour. This is a generation that needs to be challenged if they are to perform and stay motivated.

I am in no doubt that not everyone will share the sentiments expressed here and I stress again that it is a choice every individual and organisation has to make. There will be those of us who will never embrace generational change and may decide to leave the stage saying “this is too hard”. For the majority, it is time to take on the challenge and confront these so called demons. CEOs in the course of their business life face many tough and varied challenges and this is just another hurdle to be negotiated.

Ken wood, TEC chair and speaker

For 20 years Ken Wood operated as an international corporate trouble-shooter working for several multi–national companies. Born in Sunderland, England, he has worked and lived in Sydney, Singapore, Spain, Perth, visiting approximately thirty countries and now resides with his family in Adelaide, Australia where he chairs a TEC group.